Then he said something weird: “I haven’t called Russia in 10 years.”
A normal person would hear that and blink for a few seconds. It has the fingerprints of a guy who is denying accusations of marital infidelities by saying specifically that he had not ever driven another woman in his car. There are other ways to shuttle around love interests; there are other ways of contacting foreign powers and their representatives.
It’s also weird because it’s not true. Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. When he was still just Businessman Trump, he held the Miss Universe pageant in Russia — that was 2013. Maybe there’s a loophole at play here: Trump didn’t place that call to Putin and, sure, he showed up in Moscow but he didn’t telephone anyone beforehand. Or maybe it’s hyperbole.
Or maybe it’s another example of how Trump assigns a weird moral calculus to the giving and receiving of phone calls.
Here, for example, Trump dismisses fellow wealthy-guy Mark Cuban by noting that Cuban tried to call him, but he didn’t take the call.
I know Mark Cuban well. He backed me big-time but I wasn't interested in taking all of his calls.He's not smart enough to run for president!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2017
We can use this tweet to theorize an aspect to telephone-based relationships in Trump’s eyes: The person making the call is the person in the weak position.
Remember that, for Trump, there are three ways of being in touch with other people. There are in-person meetings, there are tweets and there are phone calls. Trump doesn’t use email, and it’s safe to assume that he also therefore doesn’t use direct messages on Twitter. So for him to hold a relationship with another person who isn’t standing in front of him, it’s by phone.
He became a tabloid sensation by calling up the New York Post, often pretending to be his own publicist. The effect of that? Trump isn’t the weak person making the call to try to gin up attention for himself — he’s the strong person who has a weak person make the weak move of calling a reporter. I mean, he’s both, but that’s one reason for the fiction.
Another example came after Election Day, when Bill Clinton mentioned having spoken on the phone with Trump. What did Trump correct? Who called who.
Bill Clinton stated that I called him after the election. Wrong, he called me (with a very nice congratulations). He "doesn't know much" ...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2016
When Trump was pushing back against an unflattering New York Times story about his relationship with women in his business life, he dismissed one critic by pointing out that she’d called him.
What Barbara Res does not say is that she would call my company endlessly, and for years, trying to come back. I said no.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 17, 2016
When he came under fire for speaking with Taiwan, he twice pointed out that he’d been the recipient of a call, not the originator of it.
The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2016
Granted, that was more to establish that he was not in the wrong by breaching American diplomatic tradition, but it also established that the foreign leader was calling him, establishing the direction of the flow of power in the relationship.
How important is the placing or receiving of calls to Trump? He spells out that bidirectionality in a tweet from shortly after the election, where he only has 140 characters to use. (Or, here, 280.)
Who did he call (weak) and who called him (strong)? Hard to say. We know, though, that Russia must have called him (as per the first tweet) since he hasn’t called Russia in 10 years.
But we also now know why he told the audience in the Oval Office that he hadn’t called Russia: To demonstrate that Russia isn’t even important enough for him to call. Clearly he couldn’t have been aware of a Russian effort to get him elected; he doesn’t even care enough to pick up the phone!
Or maybe that tweet from November was the equivalent of a blurry photo of Trump in his car, Russia in his passenger seat.